FACE the NATION Missed the Issue but Rep. Tim Murphy Thankfully Didn’t

Rep Tim Murphy (R-PA)  appeared on FACE the NATION yesterday along with Michael Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to discuss violence and mental illness.

Although the host kept trying to focus the discussion on whether or not video games spark mass shootings, Rep. Murphy did an excellent job explaining that the real issue that we need to address is our broken mental health system. Murphy worked as a psychologist before being elected to represent his Pittsburgh district, and he showed his mastery of the subject by explaining in a few moments how de-institutionalization and a lack of adequate community services have caused the criminalization of persons with mental disorders.

Rep. Murphy also took several shots at SAMSHA for squandering federal funds. He specifically cited SAMSHA’s support of persons and groups who encourage individuals with mental disorders to stop taking their medications. Clearly,  Rep. Murphy has been speaking with Dr. E. Fuller Torrey who has been attacking SAMSHA’s use of federal taxdollars for years.

One of the lessons that I learned after my son became sick was how we are surrounded with evidence every day of our failing mental health system — but many Americans never see it.  Those blinders fall away when mental illness touches your life.

This Saturday’s Metro section of The Washington Post printed a story that illustrates my point. Nicole Johnson attempted to drown her four children by driving them into the Anacostia River in the District of Columbia. This was after she tried — at least twice — to get someone to help her cope with her mental illness.

There was a time when I probably would have skipped over that story or not given it much thought. Not now.

It appears this ill woman will be sent to prison for a crime that she committed — even though she cried out for help and no one listened.

Why do we demand that persons with mental disorders save themselves  and then condemn and imprison them when their illnesses prevent them from doing that?

The moderator on Face the Nation wanted to talk about video games. He would have been better served to have listened to Rep. Murphy and  Mike Fitzpatrick. His audience would have been better informed too if the discussion had been about the plight of someone such as Nicole Johnson and her four children.

For the past several months, I have been speaking with one of Rep. Murphy’s top aides about mental health. Last week, Rep. Murphy and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) announced they will be holding a public forum March 5th on Capitol Hill under the auspices of  the House subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

The forum is called: After Newtown: A National Conversation on Violence and Severe Mental Illness  and I immediately agreed to participate — if asked. I also suggested the subcommittee contact Pat and Debbie Milam, whose son, Matt, committed suicide – despite his parents determined efforts to save him. (I told the Milam’s story in a blog entitled A Father Grieves: Noone Listened to the Parents.)

Hopefully, the public forum that Reps. Murphy and DeGette are hosting will shine a  spotlight on the real issue that our nation needs to discuss.

For the sake of the Nicole Johnsons in our society, I hope so.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Save themselves! exactly! empowerment is great for those who are in recovery, but as a family member i see it as an excuse not to help those most in need. I will be looking forward to March 5th. CSPAN.

  2. Marti Cockrell says

    Thank you, as usual, for your post. The general public needs to know and understand this information.
    Even as a RN who worked for several years in psychiatric nursing earlier in my life, I had no earthly idea about the condition of our mental health system and what those who are mentally ill in our society and their families have to go through, until our son was diagnosed as bipolar a few years ago.
    A story in the news last week about Representative Jesse Jackson Jr sounds like it could be another example of someone who committed a crime when he was manic and needed help and is likely to go to prison for it.

  3. Pete, 

    If you are in contact with an aid, may I ask that you recommend that they invite someone with serious mental illness to participate? It is unethical to host a forum about a group of people without that group of people, especially when that group is marginalized. Or, to use the disability rights movement’s saying: “Nothing without us is for us.” 

    Beyond that, great post 


  4. It would be great if this could be a joint panel with the Senate as well.  I know Jean Shaheen is more than willing to discuss the state of our mental healthcare system.

  5. I wholeheartedly support Erika’s suggestion.For too long, the mentally ill have been talked about, advocated for, as if they have no sound mind of their own!
    We need – UNITED MENTALLY ILL people, well, and sick, to speak up for decisions directly impacting them! We are not plants, rocks and dumb animals
    for others to decide where to put us! Many brilliant people have killed themselves because society will not accept them, help them, and treat them with dignity.Every suicide of a mentally ill person is blood on the hands of apathetic lawmakers, doctors, and all who stigmatize. That fact needs to be dealt with. The criminals who today are killing the mentally ill need to own up to their part. Maybe we should start publishing names of suicide victims, their diagnoses, where they lived, and who their family and doctors were, and who refused to hire them and what church group rejected them etc etc. It is ALWAYS a joint act when a mentally ill person commits suicide.The blame is SOLEY on society and the laws.
    Murder is evil and against our laws. But it is committed every second that the mentally ill are treated shamefully, untreated medically, and left to muddle through
    on their own with no love or support. First the spirit is murdered, then the will to live, finally the mentally ill who could have recovered self-destructs directly because of community abandonment. The mentally ill are NEVER suicidal. It is the reactive measures of those around them that cause them to think, in their confusion, that it is best for everyone.
    Lets see this topic on national media.  

  6. Terri Wasilenko says

    First off, our local cable station only airs Face the Nation from 10:30-11:00 AM so when it got close to 11:00 and no segment on violence and mental illness with Mike Fitzpatrick and Rep. Murphy, my family was more than disappointed.
    I had to find the video online  2 hours later to watch and evaluate it. I smiled while listening to Rep. Murphy blast SAMSHA’s past use of federal money and I felt happy when Mike Fitzpatrick told the nation the way it is for persons with mental illness and their families trying to advocate for them. I may have had to wait a couple of hours to see the video but I wasn’t disappointed after I watched it.
    Pete, you will make a difference if you are allowed to participate at the March 5 forum. Let us know how this turns out for you and especially what was discussed at the House of Representatives.
    Since we do not get the Washington Post, I knew nothing about Nicole Johnson’s tragic misfortune of being lost in the mental health system. Hopefully, her story can be told at the forum along with many others.

  7. To sum1hucarz. re publishing the docs and professionals who were off duty, out to lunch or couldn’t be bothered (“can i bill for the time?” ) for mentaly ill Suicides…it is well worth doing. not so much to be mean at them…but honest open sad deeply sad and let down. from our best hearts. to those who would hear and to the heart. hearts csn not easily be ignored. Anger can be ignored. I have struggled on thid since march whrn my eldest oprned fire in “cafe racer” seattle. later that day he shot himself dead also. 6th death.

    • Dear Walt, please accept my sympathy on the loss of your son. How quickly my righteous anger would become deep sadness if my child were lost that way. May all goodness and love be with you through your grieving.

  8. Another issue— mental health in the elderly— they are in nursing homes– some getting better care than others.

    Another example of lacking mental health services– my mother has GAD– generalized anxiety disorder– a fairly common problem. She’s 87 years old — recently had shoulder replacement surgery (w/ resulting complications) to relieve constant shoulder pain. It’s my belief that had she had access to proper mental health services (in New York state) the trauma to her and expense to Medicare would have been eliminated. And New York is a fairly enlightened- progressive state—but getting her the “talk therapy” she needs is nearly impossible. So she’s on heavy duty meds– which will make her fall– break a hip and add more dollars to Medicare! I’ll watch for you on CSPAN today– reading your book

    •  JAL, the issue you mention is AS BIG as the mental health issue. “However,” there is policy and even some structure, “surveys” by investigators, and so forth already in place. Google “Person Centered Care” and you will find this is FEDERAL MANDATE…since 1987. Person-Centered Care, Patient-centered Care…this sort of personalized ideal is active principle in thousands of facilities, and it is somewhat of a movement. In researching this, I even ran across pdf document about a PCC training for the Mental Health Dept of the county.

      Nursing home care CREATES mental distress, isolation, combativeness, escape attempts, hopelessness…and simple “therapy” will not help that. We’d all be upset to be trapped like that.

      Here the NH “culture” has to be changed in how residents are treated Moment to Moment. And there is this movement to doing it the right way. It helps to get behind something that is already the right direction…instead of just flailing about an individual’s problem. Families can protest to get one person’s care improved, but the situation remains the same generally.

      The same with this huge problem of mental health…How many additional huge facilities are needed to house those needing help? Offices and computers and accountants. And psychiatrists, therapists, psyche nurses, trained aides, social workers, trained police. Even if funding is voted on, there is not Shrink in a Box you order up what is needed, assembled over a week.

      Of course there will be something, done in the name of gun violence, but suggest that all individuals start on the ground where they live and make efforts to improve the situation around them, in some way. And this might mean learning about yourself even more so that you can assist family members and others near you who need help. Reach out.